My Advisor is a Monster (What Do I Do?)
Chris Cramer / April 22, 2015

What do I do about my problematic advisor??

Lord, if I had a nickel for every time I've seen some variation on that question in the last 20 years, I'd be able to put off my NSF renewal for a year (and not because NSF funding has declined to so low a level that one year's funding is insignificant...) The latest instance came to my notice in CJ's blog today.

So, listen, from someone who's been a grad student, a faculty member, and an associate dean whose portfolio includes dealing with problematic faculty members, let me try to give back by offering some thoughts. And, fair warning, this is going to be a long essay, because I think it's important to recognize the many different levels of magnitude that this problem can entail, and those different levels typically involve different strategies for coping. I'm a chemist in a College of Science and Engineering, of course, so my experience is primarily focused on these fields, but I hope that the below discussion is reasonably broadly applicable in any case.

Let's start with the lowest level of conflict (and it's important to note that the operative term at this level is "conflict" -- that is a term that does not necessarily assign blame to one party or another, it simply indicates a divergence between the situation and individual expectations -- it may be that one party deserves a lot of blame -- we'll get to that -- but let's start slow). Sometimes unhappiness or discomfort with an advisor/student relationship arises from a style of management (on the part of the advisor) that differs from a preference for supervision/communication (on the student's part). There is not necessarily any malice or malfeasance involved, but style matters. Students certainly have a right not to be uncomfortable in their situations (within the bounds of meeting reasonable expectations for progress towards degree requirements, productivity for paid activities, etc.) There's a lot of good advice out there when the conflict is at this level, and I refer you to some from Minnesota, and some that is more prophylactic in nature from Nick Feamster.

In such instances, the best strategy is communication, communication, communication. Ask to meet with your advisor, in a professional and respectful manner point out your concerns, make suggestions for changes that you believe would address any issues, and explain that you're not trying to be a problem, you're seeking a solution that works for both of you. A reasonable advisor is going to listen to you, hopefully see your point(s), respond with agreement or counter-proposals, and you will have achieved an amicable resolution. The key is to have this conversation as soon as you perceive a problem. Waiting is a recipe for misery and unhappiness. If your conversation resolves things, you win. If it doesn't? Well, on to the the next level.

So let's imagine you've had your conversation, but you've been ignored, belittled, or otherwise made no progress. Just as at every stage that we're about to discuss, it's time to ask, "Should I get out?" First off, let me point out that there really can be pure style differences, i.e., situations that are not associated with abuse, harassment, etc. That's no one's fault -- we're a big humanity and some people just don't get along well, even if they are both otherwise behaving in a professional manner. Rather than engaging in recriminations, rectifying the situation by moving on is fine -- hopefully not much life span is lost. However, it can also be the case that blame should indeed begin to be assigned, and said assignment might be more on the advisor's side. Maybe it's willful stubbornness about management style, maybe it's borderline personality issues, whatever. The question is, how much do you want to stay in that group, and how likely do you think you are to be able to normalize things in a manner that you can live with?

If you do believe that staying is an option, the next level of escalation would typically be to ask for the intervention of whatever faculty member is charged with authority over the graduate program within the department. In a decent sized program, that cares about its students, that individual will (a) be genuinely concerned about graduate student outcomes and (b) have some experience dealing with advisor/advisee conflicts (because, alas, they are not all that infrequent). If there is not a Director of Graduate Studies in whom one trusts, then there may be another faculty member with a good reputation for student advocacy. Seek that individual out (note that it may be the Department Head). Have a confidential discussion with respect to your concerns, and ask for advice. If the other faculty member thinks further intervention may be productive, and you want to take that route, ask that he or she arrange a meeting with you, your advisor, and that same second faculty member present. Ask the second faculty member to work with you to prepare a written "agreement" with respect to what you are seeking that will be the basis for discussion (e.g., the hours that you will be working, if that is a bone of contention, or the manner in which you will have meetings to discuss research progress with your advisor, or whatever topics that you believe should be addressed). Ask that the goal of the meeting be that that written list -- or a modified version to which all can agree -- be signed. You will be protected by that record and, again, you will have come to a professional understanding.

OK, now let's say that that doesn't work. The advisor considers your demands unreasonable and is unswayed by any intervention from the formally neutral intermediary. Truth? Odds are... now it's time to switch groups. Irrespective of whether it's "fair", it's definitely the path of least resistance that gets you to a degree fastest and with the least amount of pain. As part of switching groups, you may well wish to negotiate with the Director of Graduate Studies that your former advisor not be assigned to any of your committees, and in egregious cases (see below) you may want to seek additional assurances as well. In the worst case scenario, you may need to switch programs. That stinks, but again, it may be the best path for you.

And now, let's start considering the uglier cases. Let's say that this wasn't about style, or misaligned expectations. Let's say that the advisor's activities, to your mind, constitute outright abuse. Indeed, perhaps you are afraid to even consider the above options, because you are scared about retaliation. You are in a terribly vulnerable position -- a beginner in a field where perhaps the advisor holds considerable sway. It's a power differential, and you are decidedly on the wrong side of the differential. And the tenure system only makes it worse (more about that later). In that case, it is definitely time to get out. Incidentally, if you are in such a situation, do not blame yourself, and do seek professional help if you're experiencing mental health issues. This essay is more about practicalities than about coping with the emotional/mental health side, so I won't say more (although I've written about this in the past), but if you are being harassed or abused, you are a victim, not a failure. Remember that moving forward.

But, as part of getting out, you face a question: what is your obligation to address the situation so that future students do not suffer? Ah... that is such a hard question. Why should you be the one to shoulder the risk of fixing a broken situation? I wish I had a better answer for you, but, as an associate dean who has to deal with "faculty behaving badly", I hope that you will believe me when I say that I want you to do something to try to make the future a little better. And, there are things you can do that will protect your anonymity if that's a priority for you (and it's completely understandable if it is). Mind you, maybe you don't want anonymity. Maybe you're filled with righteous indignation and want to take down the rotten machine that mistreated you. Well, we can talk about those options, too.

Let's begin by noting that, as a graduate student, you are in a somewhat strange category. You are both a student, and, typically, you are also a University employee (as either a TA or an RA). There are usually distinct policies in both areas, and in the employment area, they are governed by relevant state and federal laws above and beyond University policy. Thus, for instance, my institution has an Office for Conflict Resolution that deals with employment-related issues, and a Student Conflict Resolution Center that deals with advisor/student issues (amongst others that are outside of scope for this post). A key issue in deciding which approach to pursue is the degree to which you consider your grievance to be "fundamental" vs "academic". For instance, sexual harassment is fundamental -- it's a crime, actually, and governed by relevant employment and other laws. By contrast, expecting you to work 60 hours a week in the lab and be available for Saturday morning group meetings is an academic issue. In either instance, you can file a grievance with either (or both) offices, and that will typically involve a request for a detailed complaint and a desired response of some sort on your part (see this form, for example). I.e., what outcome are you specifically seeking?

To be more specific, note that on the employment side, a quite valid complaint is the creation of a "hostile work environment". Most universities will call that out specifically as forbidden and it is a solid basis on which to advance a complaint. On the advisor/student side, by contrast, every institution is likely to have its own rules. Most schools have a Code of Conduct, and it is well worth your time to examine it and, importantly, see if it applies to faculty (my school's does, but some schools write it only to apply to students). In the recent past, a few schools have adopted a "Bill of Rights" for graduate students (e.g., Michigan) -- while these are not legally binding, they are an articulation of values, and one could again form the basis for a credible demand for remediation when such a foundation is in place.

Let us come back to the anonymity issue. Most students are not ready to go toe-to-toe with a faculty member -- for all the obvious reasons. However, conflict resolution centers are usually quite willing to afford you anonymity, at least with respect to talking about the problem and trying to imagine solutions. Just talking about it may be therapeutic for you, and, importantly, establishing a record may be important in the long run to prevent further abuses.

Why? You ask. What can be done to a tenured faculty member?

Well, OK, damn little.

But I feel like I should talk about that, at least a bit. How can it be that (some) faculty get away so easily with behaving badly? You know, it's a tougher problem than it seems. The truth is, like so many tough problems, it comes down to an issue of competing rights. The complicating factor here is academic freedom. This is a right that tends to seem bizarre to many outside the academy, but it is one to which even the Supreme Court of the United States has given deference, and it essentially sets an enormously high bar to firing or otherwise disciplining faculty members, in principle to ensure that controversial ideas and advocacy cannot be suppressed by the action of administrators influenced by popular opinion or financial interests. Thus, there has been much debate in the last several months, for instance, as to whether faculty members should be required to be "civil". Many ardent defenders of academic freedom have seen calls for "civility" as creeping assaults on academic freedom, because fighting against an "evil" orthodoxy can require stridency and activism.

On the other hand, one can certainly argue that there is a difference between requiring that one be civil with one's colleagues, and requiring that one be civil with one's students. The power differential is significant, and the responsibility to one's students is arguably substantially higher, and indeed downright contractual in nature. I, for one, am a strong believer that academic freedom carries with it a requirement to accept academic responsibility, and that included in that responsibility is professional mentoring and training of younger scholars. Nevertheless, there are those who perceive any weakening of the substantial protections of tenure as an invitation to sneakily manufacture reasons to remove faculty members with unpopular views, so the bar remains extremely high to discipline tenured faculty. (I'm not trying to be an advocate for where precisely the bar is set -- I'm just trying to provide some perspective on how it got to where it is...)

So, is all hope lost? Well, no. Let me tell you the tools in my toolbox, and let me also note that, after you talk to the conflict resolution center that seems best suited to your problem, you should talk to me -- well, more accurately, to whomever holds my equivalent role in your college. If you can't figure out which associate or assistant dean holds the faculty portfolio, ask for an appointment with the dean him/herself. If you want anonymity, that will be fine, although it may somewhat limit the options that will be available to the relevant administrator at that level. Nevertheless, if we don't have data -- if we don't have knowledge of bad behavior communicated to us -- we certainly cannot take action, as we will be (blissfully?) unaware.

Without dealing too much in specifics, what do I do when a student comes to me? First, I listen. Carefully. I try to understand the situation. I next ask the extent to which I may investigate the matter further using the student's name, e.g., talk to the head of the department, the director of graduate studies, etc. If I'm told to keep the student strictly anonymous, I do that, but I don't just file a memo in some dusty cabinet (although I do generate a record for my successors should they need to look). Instead, I generally try to reach out to a few other students in the program -- without attribution, unless permitted, and I try to engage them in a discussion of faculty behavior as advisors, knowledge of bad actors, etc. If I can establish a pattern, then I don't need one student to go beyond being anonymous, and instead I can develop a pretty firm grasp on how things stand. (I also chat with the relevant people in conflict resolution centers -- they typically have their own institutional knowledge, which may well complement mine.)

If there is indeed an obvious problem, sometimes I can help, even if only in indirect ways. (I'm dwelling on this to illustrate the utility of talking with a collegiate authority -- note that at Minnesota, the relevant authority is within the college of the department -- at some schools, though, the Graduate School itself might well be the relevant unit -- that's just something one will have to figure out.) Thus, for instance, let us say that a student tells me that his or her advisor is unreasonably extending the time required to earn the Ph.D., and I gather evidence that suggests that this is not an idle accusation. I might choose to write to said advisor, copying the director of graduate studies and department head, noting that the average time to Ph.D. in that group is surprisingly long and that such statistics reflect badly on that graduate program in comparison to peer institutions, and that I may choose to adjust collegiate funding for the relevant graduate program on that basis. Such a note does not compromise the anonymity of the student in question (as it appears to have been motivated by a simple statistical analysis, after all) and, my, my, my, how quickly I tend to get a response in so far as it involves funding.

So, that's a possible tool in the absence of being able to talk about a specific complaint. But, let's now say that you are willing to be on the record, and there are one or more others who have recorded complaints. In that case, hey, it's hard to fire a tenured faculty member, but it's not hard to indicate to them the misery that they will face as part of a special post-tenure review. Such a term is the generic language for the process involved in finding fault with an individual faculty member, which can lead to various sanctions, ranging from reprimands, to salary reductions, to termination. That process is generally long (very long) and painful for all involved, but the "all involved" includes the faculty member in question. Usually he or she does not want to be shamed in front of his or her peers (which is a typical step in a special post-tenure review process -- i.e., forming a committee to evaluate charges). Instead, once it is clear that a dean is prepared to go down that road, some sort of agreement is agreed to for punishment -- e.g., an unpaid leave of absence to exact a financial penalty. That is a non-trivial sanction that tends to make an impression, although depending on the situation one can obviously debate whether that is significant relative to the transgression(s) in question.

If it appears that an entire department requires intervention, there are mechanisms for that as well, although at that stage the benefit to the original individual may be small, compared to the potential to improve things for the future. Let me be clear: in my experience, the majority of faculty at a research institution care about the experiences of graduate students. Alums of our graduate programs are our ambassadors to the world, and we will live or die in the future on their accomplishments and on their ability to represent our programs to the next generation. That does not imply that individual faculty, and sometimes even entire individual programs cannot go rogue -- but it does imply that generally institutions will be interested in rectifying such problems once they are brought to the attention of sufficiently senior administrators. I can't guarantee that for every case, obviously, but I assert this generality, nevertheless.

Finally, at a more "in the trenches" level, as many respondents to the Chemjobber blog that prompted this essay have noted, I would certainly encourage disaffected students to chat with prospective graduate students, and to share their stories widely. Word of mouth is valuable and matters. Most communities are savvy enough to differentiate between one potential malcontent and a repeated pattern of discontented students that more convincingly reflects advisorial mismanagement. One wants to protect oneself, perhaps, by keeping such communication informal and off the record, but it is nevertheless a valuable service to your peers.

Bottom line? I wish academic freedom, as well as the traditionally heirarchical structure of academia, did not offer a far too ready shield to those poor advisors who do abuse students. I wish it passionately. But in the absence of being able to snap my fingers and change the system overnight, I'm contenting myself with offering the above thoughts to students facing difficult situations. Know that you are absolutely not alone, that your institution generally does include responsible people who want to help you resolve your situation and, most importantly, it's not your fault. I can't speak for every institution, of course -- there may be some with poisonous cultures that go so far up that an unhappy student is doomed -- I'd like to believe that there aren't many, but there will always be a worst case example. Nevertheless, I hope that my advice above may prove helpful to individuals trying to navigate difficult circumstances of one kind or another.